Olympics needn’t be Hellen earth

Olympics needn’t be Hellen earth
By Philip Howard

The Times (London)
May 28, 2004, Friday

They said that Athens would never be ready for the Olympics in time.
According to The New York Times: “Athens is a dump, the transport
system is on a par with provincial cities of Algeria, the democracy
is bogus, the Games will be crooked, and the Greeks know as little
about amateur sport as the Chinese.”

Luckily, The Times was there to put the record straight. But this was
all about the Olympics in Athens in 1896. Michael Llewellyn Smith,
our former Ambassador to Athens, describes the invention of the modern
event in his book Olympics in Athens 1896: The Invention of the Modern
Olympic Games, which is about to be published.

He records how much Pierre de Coubertin and the other founding fathers
of the Neo-Olympics owed to such British pioneers as Tom Brown’s
Schooldays, the Much Wenlock Olympics in Shropshire (where shin-kicking
was one of the games), and such British contests as the University
Boat Race. Coubertin took care not to acknowledge his sources.

Our archives show how instrumental The Times itself was in the rebirth
of the Olympics. The archaeologist, Charles Waldstein, former director
of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, put the record
straight about Athens. He contradicted rumours that the site and
buildings would not be ready in time, and that the Games would be
a failure.

Having inspected the stadium and rifle ranges, he was happy to
congratulate the organisers and the architect on the energy and
intelligence with which the work had been pushed forward, and the
stupendous effect produced by the stadium. He gave this testimony,
naturally, in a letter to the Editor of The Times.

Our man in Athens was a leading and eccentric player in the renaissance
of the Olympics. James David Bourchier, who began his career as a
beak at Eton, and ended it as a Bulgarian national hero, was one
of the few Times hacks (so far) to be portrayed on a stamp wearing
Bulgarian national costume.

He was also stone deaf. It was a common sight in the gardens of the
Royal Palace in Sofia to see King Ferdinand of Bulgaria shouting
state secrets into Bourchier’s ear-trumpet. A British diplomat said
that whenever a great noise was heard in the Balkans, it was either
Bourchier telling a state secret to a prime minister, or a prime
minister telling a state secret to Bourchier. An Irishman and classical
scholar, he sympathised with the struggles of the Macedonian Greeks
for complete freedom from Ottoman overlordship. His lush moustache
and melancholy eyes would add distinction to our newsroom today.

In 1896 Bourchier had got into hot water in Bulgaria for taking
the side of Muslim Bulgarians. The man from The Times was accused
of being an enemy agent, or even an Armenian agitator. His contacts
were threatened with death or ruin. So we decided to transfer him to
Athens. Bourchier wrote to the managing editor: “I have always been
glad to think that The Times attaches more importance to questions
of scholarship and art than any other newspaper, and perhaps I may
say that, in my own case, work in this field -which is done con amore
-is likely to be my best.”

To mark the opening of those first renaissance Games, The Times
published a two-column think piece from Our Special Correspondent
-Bourchier of course. He paid tribute to Courbertin. He regretted
that the festival could not have been celebrated at Olympia among
the monuments of ancient grandeur being brought to light by the
archaeologists. But he accepted that this was impossible. Modern
visitors could not be expected to camp out in the fields or under the
portico of a temple, like visitors to the ancient games. Athens was
the only place capable of supplying modern comforts and infrastructure.

Bourchier castigated the British for not turning out: “It is greatly
to be regretted that England, the home of latter-day athletics, will
be very inadequately represented at the festival, and that Oxford and
Cambridge, where the physical and mental training of Ancient Greece
has found its nearest counterpart in modern times, will hardly be
represented at all.” He said that the Olympic Games should never be
removed from their native soil.

As one Greek said, you cannot tread twice in the same river. We can
regret that they did not decide always to hold the Olympics at their
original home of Olympia.

We miss the brave amateurism of those first games, at which a
Princeton boy picked up the first discus he had seen, and won the
event; a British tourist went in for the tennis, and won; and nobody
knew whether the triple jump was hop, hop, jump, or hop, step and
jump. Either would do.

We deplore some of the sillier modern sports, as opposed to knitting,
which featured in some of the early Olympics. Bring back shin-kicking,
I say. We regret that the Games have been taken over by commercialism,
bribery, corruption and cheating. But we cheer for their ancient charm
and modern magic. And we can be sure that The Times will continue
to support and report them with the enthusiasm and wisdom of James
Bourchier, our Special Correspondent.